Remembering the Stonewall riots

MGN Online The Stonewall Inn, declared an LGBT rights national monument by President Barack Obama in 2016.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot that galvanized LGBTQ+ activist organizations and movements in the U.S. and abroad. When I look back at the first night of the riots, which took place from June 27 to 29, 1969, I could never have imagined their future importance.

I couldn’t have imagined their Whitewashing, either. As with all iconic narratives, though, apocryphal tales abound, along with questions about the truth.

The Stonewall turbulence started on the backs of working-class African American and Latinx queers who patronized the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Those Brown and Black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but they have been bleached from its written history.

The first night of the riots played out no differently from previous riots with Black Americans and White law enforcement officers. And, so it was underreported.

But I was there!

Friday, June 27 was the last day of school that year. My middle school cronies and I looked forward to a summer reprieve from rioting against Italian, Irish, and Jewish public school kids for being bussed into their neighborhoods. Summer months in Brooklyn’s African American enclaves, however, only escalated a different kind of rioting — against the New York Police Department. 

In the ’60s, riots between White police officers and Black citizens took place in our neighborhoods, just as they still do today: Ferguson, Mo., 2014 (Michael Brown); Baltimore, Md., 2015 (Freddie Gray); Louisiana, 2016 (Alton Sterling); and Falcon Heights, Minn., 2016 (Philando Castile), to name a few.

During this tumultuous decade of Black rage and White police raids, knee-jerk responses to slights quickly set the stage for a conflagration — creating both instantaneous and momentary fighting alliances in these Black communities across gangs, class, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientations — against police brutality.

That night started no differently than any other hot and humid summer Friday evening in my neighborhood. Past midnight, folks with no air conditioning or working fans in their homes were hanging out. Then news came from one of our neighbors that “pigs” — a term we called White police officers in the 1960s — across the bridge in Greenwich Village were beating up on Black [F-word]s right now!”

The inn being raided was nothing new. In the ’60s, gay bars in the Village were routinely raided. And, the Stonewall Inn was a stable domicile for homeless youth and young adults who slept in nearby Christopher Park and African American and Latinx patrons frequented the Stonewall Inn heavily.

As one commenter on T-VOX, an LGBTQ+ support forum, noted, “Race is said to have been another factor. The decision by the police to raid the bar in the manner they did may have been influenced by the fact that most of the ‘homosexuals’ they would encounter were of color, and therefore even more objectionable.”

African American and Latinx patrons also comprised the largest percentage of protesters on the first night of the riots. So, many of us went to the Village to retrieve our loved ones and leave. It takes White privilege to fight the police, expect to walk away alive and create a hagiographical narrative of White heroism.

Take, for instance, Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film, Stonewall. The film spurred both shock and disappointment from moviegoers, historians, and LGBT activists, including myself by failing to depict an accurate story. Instead, the film presented a Whitewashed revisionist history.

Emmerich apparently felt a more captivating narrative should center around a blond, blue-eyed, “straight-acting” Midwestern protagonist, likely in order to appeal to mainstream audiences.

“I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he told Buzzfeed. “As a director, you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m White and gay.”

In doing so, Emmerich’s “Danny” reinscribes the trope of the White savior and action hero. Danny throws the first brick, setting off the riots while shouting “GAY POWER!” — while, in real life, the brick throwers were poor and working-class Black and Latinx LGBTQs.

According to many LGBTQ Blacks and Latinx, one of the reasons for the gulf between them and Whites is how the dominant White queer community rewrote and continues to control the narrative of Stonewall. It is also prevented a united front against homo/transphobia in local and national politics from forming for events such as Pride.

The White-dominant control of the Stonewall narrative must be relinquished to give way to a broader, and more accurate, truth.

Still today, trans communities of color are relegated to the margins of Greenwich Village and stories of Stonewall Riots. Nonetheless, many force their way in to become a visible and influential presence in our lives, leaving indelible imprints despite being confronted with transphobia and “trans-amnesia.”

Rev. Irene Monroe is an African American lesbian feminist public theologian, sought-after speaker, and preacher.